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By Thelma June Jackson, Heritage Journal
After much delay, West Kennet Long Barrow has been closed for conservation work. The entrance is fenced off while a small team of what looked like three people work on the drainage and 1950s concrete skylight. I was over there on Monday and spoke to someone who said he was an archaeology-engineer. The work appears to being carried out with care and precision, has been jointly commissioned by NT and EH.
At the same time a very strong plastic webbing ‘road’ has been laid on the grass pathway leading up to the barrow and a portacabin is up there behind the fencing.
An interesting English Heritage document, Heritage Crime Research: The Size of the Problem seeks to evaluate the damage caused by various crimes and in our particular sphere of interest (scheduled monuments and other designated historic sites) simple antisocial behaviour is the single most common heritage crime. Illegal detecting and off-roading are also problems but metal theft is less common than it is with other types of heritage assets.
However, viewing damage through the narrow prism of heritage crime can distort the reality and none of the crimes quoted in that research document cause anything like as much damage as is caused legally by agriculture, as highlighted in another English Heritage document from 2003 – Ripping up History.
Modern ploughing has done more damage in six decades than traditional agriculture did in the preceding six centuries. Among the sites being actively ploughed are nearly 3000 scheduled monuments, sites recognised as being of national importance to our heritage.
“We are, quite literally, ripping up our history.
Farmers are not at fault.They have done what society has asked them to do and past agricultural policy has dictated. However, if this important inheritance is to be better protected in future, it is essential that government, archaeologists and farmers now work together to find a new and more sensitive approach.
Over 10,000 wetland monuments are estimated to have suffered damage in the last 50 years …….. An estimated 94% of East Midlands ridge and furrow has been destroyed …….. Ploughing is damaging over 100 Anglo-Saxon cemeteries in Norfolk and Suffolk …….. Fewer than 10 out of 1200 burial mounds in Essex now survive as earthworks …….. Over a quarter of the nationally important scheduled monuments in the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site are under damaging arable cultivation.“
At that time EH suggested 3 key actions were needed: an expansion of Environmental Stewardship schemes, further protection legislation and further policies to lessen the amount of grassland over protected archaeology being turned over to arable cultivation. That was almost ten years ago and some progress towards those aims has been made, particularly a big expansion of the Stewardship schemes (70% of agricultural land is now in schemes). However, perhaps the best hope for greater protection in the next few years will come from something that wasn’t specified back then: the Government is to move towards paying farmers to adopt “min til” (minimum tillage) – the low impact farming system that replaces ploughing.
The Government this morning have announced that due to the impending fuel shortage, farmers are being urged to increase food production for sale at local markets, thus reducing the need for shoppers to travel for fresh produce.
To this end, any barrows or ‘tumuli’ existing on farmland will be allowed to be ploughed flat to increase the available land, and thus yield for crops. A government spokesman stated “It’s well known that the antiquarians robbed out all the barrows in the 18th and 19th centuries, these ‘lumps’ in the fields are just getting in the way now, we may as well make them profitable. We’re in a recession and every little helps!”
In an effort to reduce the inevitable arguments from archaeology societies concerned about the loss of heritage, local metal-detecting clubs will be urged to contact their local farms and scan over the remains, ‘just in case something of historic interest is found’. The spokesman said that as the farmers will be benefiting from increased yield, then it’s only right that the metal detectorists be allowed to retain 100% of anything they find that is later saleable, after recording the finds with the Portable Antiquities Scheme.
In this short series we hope to provide an insight into the many types of Neolithic and Bronze Age barrow dotted around our landscape. But let’s start with a simple question:
What is a Barrow?
The English Heritage Monument Type Thesaurus defines a Barrow as an “Artificial mound of earth, turf and/or stone, normally constructed to contain or conceal burials.” This is of course a very general description, there are many types of barrow within this definiton, and we’ll be providing examples of some of these in forthcoming articles. The first barrows appeared around five to five and a half thousand years ago (c3500-3000 BCE), and were of the Long Barrow type. Barrow construction lasted for some two thousand years and by c 1500 BCE, barrows in the Neolithic/Bronze Age style were no longer being used, although there are some later Roman (Six Hills in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, Thornborough Mounds in Buckinghamshire, Bartlow Hills in Essex), Viking (Repton in Cumbria and Ingleby in Derbyshire) and Anglo Saxon (e.g. Sutton Hoo) barrow constructs remaining.
Types of Barrow
Barrows fall into two main forms, the Long Barrow and Round Barrow. Although earlier in date, Long barrows are often more complex and may have one or more stone chambers within to hold the burials. Round barrows are later and much simpler, often being a mound of earth thrown up over a central inhumation, though there are several sub-types of round barrow, such as bowl, bell, disc, pond, saucer etc.
Where are they found?
Quite simply, just about anywhere from the Shetlands to Lands End in Cornwall. Barrows and associated monuments seem to be pretty ubiquitous in the UK. If an area appears to be lacking in barrows, it’s probably because they’ve been ploughed out – many barrows are damaged by modern farming practices. Whilst some cannot be missed due to their size, such as the Kenwyn Four Barrows straddling the A30 northwest of Truro in Cornwall, others are barely discernable as minor ‘lumps and bumps’ and can disappear completely from view when fields are in crop.
What were they used for?
The obvious answer is burials, but research suggests it was more complicated than that. There are various theories as to barrows being used not only as sepulchral monuments, but also as delineators of territory or waymarkers for trade routes. Many barrows show no signs of ever being used for holding burials or cremated remains, whilst in others, where bones have been found, they have been much younger in age than the monuments, suggesting either continued use, or a much later re-use of an existing monument.
We shall be continuing this series over the next couple of weeks, but for more in depth reading, we can recommend the following books, available via Amazon:
The barrow cemetery at Therfield Heath in Hertfordshire (Grid Ref TL3440) is a true multi-period site. Situated approx 1.5 miles south of the Icknield Way ancient trackway, just to the west of the modern market town of Royston, it contains a Longbarrow and a group of up to 12 Round Barrows, several of which show signs of more recent re-use. And today the site is an SSSI, part of a golf course and picnic site and leisure complex(!), with good views to the north across Cambridgeshire.
The Longbarrow has been dated to the Neolithic (New Stone Age) – c.4000-c.2300 B.C. – and the round barrows to Bronze Age dates – c.2300-c.750 B.C. Many of the Therfield barrows have been excavated, and found to contain the ashes of a single cremation, often in a pottery vessel, and sometimes accompanied by objects intended for use in the afterlife. Some also contained evidence that the mounds were re-used for pagan burial in the early to middle Anglo-Saxon period (A.D. c.410-870).
The Longbarrow is oriented E-W and measures 38 x 26m at its broader E end diminishing to 15.5m at the W. The maximum height is 2.2m at the E end maintaining slight slope down to 1.7m at the W end. This accentuates the natural slope.
The Longbarrow has been excavated twice, and the results of both investigations are published in Phillips’ 1935 paper1. The longitudinal trench excavated by E Nunn in 1855 is still prominent on the summit of the barrow as a regular depression 2.25m wide and 0.25m deep. Nunn described digging the barrow in the 19th Century2 thusly:
‘April 26th 1855, Opened the Long Hill on Royston Heath. Made a cut about 7 feet wide to the base of the hill throughout its length. Found in the east end at about 1 foot from the top a small heap of calcined human bones, and a small piece or two of iron very much corroded, a few pieces of flints. At the depth of 4 feet a human skeleton lying with its legs crossed, the internment was Head NE by SW, at the base of the hill a bank of flint lying NW-SE the portion above described relates to portion no.1 on ground plan. In portion no. 2 a cyst was found cut in the chalk at the base of the hill about 2 feet depth being 18 to 20 inches, containing ashes, at 6 yards farther west another cyst was found of the same description and dimensions. At about 2ft farther west a skeleton was found, the bones being placed in a kind of heap or circle. This was also on the base of the hill. Nothing more was found.’
Whilst in the general area, which due to the proximity of the Icknield way is scattered with reminders of our ancient past, drop into Royston to view the ‘Roy Stone’; a 2 tonne glacial erratic placed at ‘time immemorial’ at the crossroads of the Icknield Way and the Roman Ermine Street. There is also Royston Cave across the road from the stone, an underground chamber carved into the chalk with strange pagan/christian carvings of uncertain date but for some reason associated with the Knights Templar.
Further to the West is the village of Weston, home to the grave (in the churchyard) of the legendary giant, Jack o’ Legs. Also Weston Henge, a rare monument type for Hertfordshire, is a short distance from the village though very little remains to be seen on the site there today.
- Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 1935 (C W Phillips) 1 Page(s)101-7
- Nunn, EB 1855 MSS Notebook Palmer Collection, Cambridge University Library
English Heritage has just published its annual Heritage at Risk report. Prehistory enthusiasts will note that of nearly 20,000 at risk monuments more than two thirds are threatened by either “arable cultivation” or “unrestricted plant, scrub and tree growth” – and a large number of them are likely to be prehistoric.
Considering the law is clear that it is an offence to damage a scheduled monument, it shouldn’t be happening at all – in an ideal world. But in reality it is hard to prevent damage as mostly it isn’t dramatic like at Priddy Henges but slow and incremental – but with the same result.
One of many thousands of ploughed out burial mounds
It seems the authorities are doing as much as they can do within the current financial constraints – English Heritage inspects monuments (albeit very infrequently in most cases), makes landowners aware of their responsibilities and has offered grants this year totalling £357,000. DEFRA pays out millions to those farmers that are willing to adopt conservation-friendly farming methods. As a result 399 sites have been removed from the Register since 2009 due to “positive reasons” (though how many have been added or removed for “negative reasons” isn’t clear).
EH has just issued tender documents for an outside organisation to undertake a national assessment of monuments vulnerable to arable cultivationso so their and DEFRA’s resources can be better targeted. But at risk of nagging, as we said in August, there may be some value in…
“…harnessing and collating the efforts of the hundreds of ordinary members of the public that visit all the sites in question on a regular basis and who could be relied upon to provide accurate (and very up-to-date and entirely free!) structured eye-witness accounts. The sort of people that use websites like The Modern Antiquarian, The Megalithic Portal and others. Needless to say there would be additional advantages… the opportunity to foster a sense of public engagement and stimulate public involvement in monument guardianship on an ongoing basis.”
And as we said again in September…
“Isn’t this a golden opportunity for English Heritage to demonstrate that “Public Engagement” is more than just a slogan?”
The Wrekin in Shropshire is visited by countless thousands of people and erosion due to footfall is an ongoing problem. Particularly affected is “The Barrow between Heaven and Hell’s Gate” close to the summit. Volunteer restoration teams have recently been at work to protect it.
Pete Lambert, from Shropshire Wildlife Trust explained: “We are covering it with matting and then sowing it with grass seed to protect it from further damage. It was starting to become very exposed so we needed to seal in that bit of archaeology.”
The Wrekin was once home to the Celtic Cornovii tribe which built the fort and called it their capital. It sprawled the summit of the hill and covered about 20 acres. Mr Lambert added: “Hell Gate, the earthwork entrance created by the Cornovii, has also suffered extensive erosion and is being restored“. More here.